I feel like Russia is on the ‘too hard’ list for a lot of people. You need a visa, and when most people think of Moscow, I’m sure they think of Stalinist apartment blocks – and not a lot more. Yes, there are definitely big, ugly apartment blocks. But there are also green public parks, hundreds of statues, beautiful buildings and so much history. A week in Moscow is highly recommended.
I was fortunate to stay with friends, which helped keep my costs down. It also meant I was able to explore a lot of the city with some very helpful guides – my friend Sapphire and baby Alexandra. However, Moscow wasn’t as hard to get around as I imagined. I spent the first few days relaxing and spending time with Sapphire, and then it was on to full tourist mode. I saw so many sights in just a few days – you could easily do a three-day trip to Moscow and see the sights. I’ll write about what I did first, and then propose a three-day itinerary at the end of my post.
The first few days I spent in Moscow were spent exploring the area around the Arbat and Ostozhenka. When I got to Moscow, I was bewildered to see huge numbers of police around. Was there some danger that I wasn’t aware of? No. Apparently, thousands of Orthodox had descended on Moscow to see the rib bone of Saint Nicholas. Yes, a four-inch rib piece of the Saint who inspired the original Santa Claus was inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It is the first time to relic had left Italy, and symbolises an important step forward between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The police were making sure that no one jumped the queue, given some people were waiting five or six hours for a glimpse. To be fair, the method of crowd control was actually pretty effective.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior itself has an interesting story. It was one of the first things I saw when I emerged from Kropotkinskaya metro station for the first time, with its onion domes glimmering in the sun. When I arrived at Sapphire’s apartment, I did a quick google to find out the history of the building. Opened in 2000. Hmmmm. Seen as a monument to the excesses of the ‘old regime’, the original cathedral – the site of the début of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in 1882 – was turned to rubble by the Soviets in 1931.
In its place, Stalin decreed that the colossal Palace of the Soviets would be built, a plan that never came to fruition. Instead, the former cathedral was turned into the worlds largest outdoor swimming pool. Lovely. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a new cathedral was built from 1995-2000, and in 2000 it was the site of the canonization of the last Russian royal family as passion bearers. Being very interested in Romanov history, I would have loved to look inside, but wasn’t too keen on the wait time. I’m hoping Santa has moved on before my next visit.
The Old Arbat is a beautiful pedestrian street in central Moscow. Dotted with little museums, tourist shops and eateries, the road is the route of the French military invasion of Moscow in 1812, written about in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The buildings are beautiful. I’m a sucker for Neo-Byzantine Russian architecture, those brightly colored stucco buildings popular during the reign of Alexander II. The Old Arbat also featured some very cool street art, and some interesting babushkas hawking wares. It led us to our next metro stop – Arbatskaya – which was something else altogether.
The Moscow Metro is incredible. If you want to kill half a day for less than 3AED, just ride around the Koltseveya Line – the brown, circular one – and gawk at the stations. Legend has it, the circular line originated when a metro plan was brought to Stalin, without any plan for a brown line. After sipping coffee from a large cup, he placed it on the blueprints, the cup leaving a brown ring on top of the metro lines.
The engineers, upon consideration, found it to be a good idea. Cool story. I’m pretty sure that isn’t true, and even if it was, I’m guessing the engineers would be too scared to reprimand Stalin for his messy coffee drinking. Regardless, the brown line hosts many of the most beautiful metro stations, with the other lines featuring more economical design elements.
Early in my trip, we took the metro out to Victory Park. Located on Poklonnaya Hill, Victory Park is built on the spot where Napoleon waited in vain for the keys to the Kremlin to be bought to him. He obviously never got them. It is now a memorial to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – World War Two – and is home to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. A key feature of the park is an obelisk erected in 1990, 141.8m tall, 10cms for each day of World War Two. Seriously, that thing is huge.
The museum was only 25AED to enter, so I thought I would take a look. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the features were labelled in English. The museum is built around a massive central Hall of Glory, that lists the names of over 11,000 Heroes of the Soviet Union, and hero cities. Underneath the Hall of Glory, the Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow lies, a monument to the 26 million people who died or went missing during World War Two. The hall has thousands of little tear drops hanging from the ceiling, to symbolise the tears shed for the Russian’s lost countrymen.
The museum was nearly deserted when I visited, and while it didn’t look particularly big from the outside, I realised how massive it was once I was standing in the stark Hall of Commanders inside. Outside, you can also see an eternal flame, and Victory Park hosts – among other things – an Orthodox Cathedral, various war memorials and a Holocaust memorial. It also has many ice cream vendors, if you are feeling so inclined.
Sapphire and I walked down to Red Square on Tuesday morning, which was only about twenty-minutes away. I was so excited. To get to approach Red Square and the Kremlin on foot is pretty epic, particularly when you see the Kremlin towers emerging from the landscape. Sapphire helped me buy my tickets for the Kremlin and led me to the entrance, and after a half an hour, I was in the Kremlin grounds.
My first stop was the Armoury, two floors of jewels, carriages and clothing relating to Russia’s rulers. My favorites were the Faberge eggs and Catherine the Great’s dresses. It was fun to compare her wedding dress – which was tiny – to the dresses she wore in later life. Being Empress of Russia is probably a good excuse for stress eating. I also visited the Diamond Fund, which is the Russian equivalent to the crown jewels. They were very pretty, but without any English information, I had no idea what I was looking at. The jewels looked like some whoppers, though.
I then wandered through some of the cathedrals on the Kremlin site. There are seven churches/cathedrals/bell towers that dot the site. The Cathedral of the Archangel contains the tombs of 46 Tsars, and the Cathedral of the Assumption was the site where Russian Tsars were crowned. I had been to Russian Orthodox Cathedrals before, and they are quite different inside – the interior full of icons and pictures of Saints. They were also surprisingly little, but I’m guessing access to the Kremlin was pretty well locked down in Tsarist times. I then wandered through the gates to Red Square, where I was met with the best view.
There aren’t that many times when you wander somewhere, and its exactly like you imagined it to be. I knew Red Square was always teeming with tourists, so I was prepared for it to be busy. But to see Saint Basils Cathedral was pretty amazing. It looks like something out of Disneyland, which is bizarre given it was built from 1555 – 1561. While it is gorgeous from the outside, the inside is pretty lacklustre. It is full of tiny corridors leading to nine chapels, which are really just random rooms. You have to wander up a flight of steep but short stairs to the second level, and it feels very small. You get some fantastic views of Red Square, but I’d give it a miss if I was going back.
By this stage, I was getting hungry, so I wandered over to GUM to grab some lunch. Originally the home to the State Department Store during the Soviet Era, it is now (ironically) full of high-end designer stores, and tourists eating ice cream while wandering round. I went up to the top floor to Stolovaya No. 57, a canteen style restaurant where I got a utilitarian lunch for 19AED. Sapphire and I had visited My-My, a similar canteen style restaurant, a few days earlier, and it was great. We may have gone to another later in my trip. They won’t win any awards for fine cuisine, but you can pretty much just point at what you want with a spasiba. My Russian is pretty limited, and while I knew the word for thank you, I also knew the word for hippopotamus – begemot. I didn’t want to get those two mixed up.
By this time, I’d missed my chance at visiting Lenin – he shuts up shop at 1PM. Instead, I went for a bit of a wander before meeting up with Sapphire and taking Alexandra to the Hermitage Gardens. Created in 1894 to host a screening of the Lumiere brothers’ first film in 1896, it offered us a chance to sit down for a bit and enjoy the sunshine. After an epic bus ride that turned to to be heading in the right direction – hooray! – we were home again.
The next day, I got up early to go and see Lenin, but unfortunately, I was slowed down by the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Gardens. By the time I got to the line at around 9.45am, it was teeming with people. However, by 10.45, I was in. You basically only get about 30 seconds to view Lenin – looking rather small and a bit pale after all these years – before being shuffled back out into the sunlight. However, out the back of the tomb you can view parts of the Kremlin Necropolis. Stalin is buried here, and the ashes of Yuri Gagarin are entombed in the Kremlin Wall. Stalin’s grave is obvious – look for the big old Stalin head right after you leave Lenin’s tomb – but if you want to see Yuri, look for the plaque that reads Гага́рин – looks a bit like RARAPNH.
We unfortunately missed getting tickets to the Bolshoi theatre tour – which seemed to have sold out a long time before I arrived to line up – but found an amazing art shop in the Central Children’s Store on Lubyanka. Apparently, there is a great viewing platform on top of it, a fact we found out after we had left. The area, ironically, is best known for its association with the KGB, who still work in the nearby Lubyanka building. Probably not a place you really want to end up on your trip to Moscow.
In the afternoon, I took the metro out to the Museum of Cosmonautics. Like from Kroptokinskaya, I emerged from the metro to see the 107 metre Monument to the Conquerers of Space, which is pretty impressive. I loved the museum itself, even though the amount of artifacts labelled in English were limited. It had mock ups of MIR, the ISS and Soyuz capsules and various satellites, plus lots of information on the Space Race. One of the weirder exhibits were the stuffed dogs, Belka and Strelka, who were the first dogs to go to space and tell the tale. Their earlier cosmo-dog buddy, Laika, unfortunately overheated very quickly during her flight and died from stress – she didn’t live half as long as the Soviets earlier claimed. I imagine she probably wasn’t in much of a state to be stuffed and mounted after that traumatic ordeal.
I caught the metro back towards the apartment, visiting Gorky Park on the banks of the Moskva River. It was much prettier than I expected. Admittedly, all I knew about Gorky Park was that there was a novel and film written about it, where some kids are killed ice skating. The movie wasn’t even filmed in Moscow. I’d expected it to be pretty grim, but it was bustling with people, boats, and more ice cream sellers. Apart from a random man who tried to hand me his pet bird for a photo (!), it was a nice walk. Also, have you ever been to a karaoke bar, and seen those videos with Russian girls grooving along to music in nondescript locations? Yeah, I’m pretty sure they were filming some of those videos in Gorky Park.
The next day was a relaxed one. We had a delicious brunch at Voronezh, after which we visited Charlie at work. We had tried to buy plain bread rolls at a local monastery, but instead ended up with giant loaves of cinnamon and poppy seed bread. Oops, we tried. We then went for a bit of a wander over the bridge to the Muzeon Park of Arts, after browsing the art stalls along the riverside. The park is basically a dumping ground for all the Soviet statues removed from around the city, and if you’ve ever wanted to see a multitude of Lenins in one place, this park is for you. There is also a noseless Stalin, and a creepy bunny with nipples. I’m not sure that the bunny has much to do with Soviet times, but you can’t miss it. You can also get a great view from the park of the Monument to Peter the Great – a massive column with a ship perched atop in the river. Apparently, his eyes look pretty interesting up close.
Finally, we wandered back to the apartment, taking a detour through Bolotnaya Square and viewing more creepy statues. Seriously Moscow, some of these things are messed up. This one was called ‘Children are the Victims of Adult Vices‘, and its as weird as you would expect. Possibly weirder. I’m not particularly sure why the prostitution statue has a frog head. Perhaps it is better that I don’t know. We ended our walk with an amazing view of Red Square whilst crossing the Borovitskaya Bridge. By this stage, I was well and truly pooped. It was a week well spent.
Moscow really does have a lot to offer. If you aren’t interested in history, you might find it a bit repetitive, but you can still appreciate the beautiful architecture and green areas. The temperature at the moment offers a welcome respite from Dubai’s heat. If you would like a visit, I’d recommend the following three-day itinerary.
Book online for the Kremlin (the Armoury and grounds), any time after 11.15am. At about 9.30am, go and line up for Lenin. After visiting Lenin, go to the Armoury and visit the Kremlin grounds. Have a late lunch in GUM, admire Saint Basils Cathedral and wander the streets of the Kitai-Gorod. Eat dinner at one of the many restaurants around ul. Kuznetskiy Most.
Have breakfast, and then head out to the Cosmonautics Museum. After visiting the museum, wander through the surrounding park, and visit the VDNKh exhibition centre nearby for more space era artifacts. Catch the metro to Victory Park. Grab something to eat in the surrounding area, and visit the Museum to the Great Patriotic War. Head on the metro to Gorky Park, and grab an ice cream or drink while wandering the grounds.
Visit the Muzeon Statue Park, and try to get tickets to a tour or performance at the Bolshoi Theatre (or any other of Moscow’s many theaters). If you speak Russian, visit the State Historical Museum, or if you are interested in art, you can visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Marvel at the cost of goods at TSUM, mingle in the Alexander gardens, or visit the Cathedral of Christ the Savior – providing Santa has departed. You can also visit Sparrow Hills for a great view of the city.
And make sure you have at least one meal at My-My. Come on. Give it a go.
Stay: I stayed with Friends, but anything central and near a metro stop is recommended. If you can spring for it, somewhere near Red Square is recommended, at least for one night. Think of that view.
Eat: Supermarkets are commonplace, and you can pick up snacks there. Voronezh and Miles Cafe are recommended in Ostozhenka – Voronezh does a well priced brunch menu, and Miles a mean burger. Visit My-Myand Stolovaya No. 57 for a (semi) authentic Soviet experience – they are really cheap, and have heaps of variety. My-My does a great borscht!
Visit: Of the places you need to buy tickets for – The Kremlin. Cosmonautics Museum. The Bolshoi Theatre.
See: Gorky Park. Hermitage Gardens. Muzeon Statue Park. Red Square. Lubyanka Square. Cosmonauts Park.
Transport. Use the metro as much as you can. If you buy a blue card, trips come down to 30 roubles each. It is very cost effective, and you can marvel at the pretty stations. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English. Be aware that Moscow is a city of roadworks, and you’ll have to saunter down some pretty narrow alleyways set up to allow work to continue.
The Moscow metro is easy to get around, but I’d recommend taking a screenshot of the Russian name (Cyrillic characters) of your destination to make sure you know where to get off. Some of the metro lines also announce the station names in Russian. It also doesn’t have many stations that are easy to cart your suitcase around, so I’d recommend an airport transfer, unless you have light bags.
When you go to Kremlin, you will be allocated the next available time slot. This meant that I had to visit the Armoury and the Diamond Fund between 10-11.30. If you would rather book consecutive slots, you can book your tickets online. The Kremlin grounds ticket lasts all day. Don’t take anything bigger than a handbag (30×30 or so) or you will have to check it in for the day.
Everyone must register upon entering Russia. If you are booked in a hotel, they will usually do this for you. They will probably give you registration documents – hold on to these, as you will need to keep them during your stay. If you travel as a private guest – as I did – you must register yourself, although Charlie helpfully did this for me. It did mean my passport was in absentia for a few days.
The Russians I encountered were generally very helpful and friendly. I felt safer in Moscow than in London or New York. As long as you act as if you would in any other major city – keep an eye on your handbag – you are fine. If you were to get approached by Police for any strange reason and are concerned, contact your local embassy.